NFL Preview: NFC
As the National Football League regular season quickly approaches us, it is to ask the same questions we as fans ask every single year. How will last season's Super Bowl teams fair this year? Which teams are the true contenders to win a championship? Will America's Team finally put all that talent together and make a legitimate run (at least Cowboys' fans are asking this)? Who will be the surprise teams this year? What rookies will blow us away and kick ourselves because our team didn't take a chance on them?
These are all worthwhile questions, but we can't answer all of them yet. Let's face it, the NFL season is the most unpredictable season of our country's major sports leagues. Perfect case in point, the last team to repeat as Super Bowl Champions are the New England Patriots. That happened a decade ago. What I will be doing is giving you a prediction as to how each division will end up and who the wild card teams will be. I will do this for the NFC and AFC. Then I will break down how I believe the playoffs will go down and who will win the Super Bowl at Metlife Stadium in February.
First let's begin with the NFC and break it down division by division. I will rank each team as I believe they will finish (predicted record in parentheses) and give a small observation of each team.
1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)- This might be without a shadow of a doubt the hardest division to predict. The 49ers may have made it to the Super Bowl last year, but many expected them to do just that. No one was expecting the Seahawks to make the run they did, much less with a rookie quarterback. I know that they lost Percy Harvin before even using him on one meaningful down, but Russell Wilson returns with more confidence in himself and the weapons he has returning to him this year. Plus the offense revolves around Marshawn Lynch and a devastating defense that will put pressure on many QBs and create takeaways. That is why I believe the Seahawks will survive and finish atop the NFC West.
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)- Yes, I am giving the 49ers the same record as the Seahawks-- who I picked to win the division. This is my way of saying that these two teams are pretty evenly matched and Seattle will win the division on a tiebreaker. Colin Kaepernick is ready to explode completely on the league in his first full season as the man in San Fran. The defense may have lost some weapons, but got a steal when they picked up Nnamdi Asomugha. Even with the loss of Michael Crabtree, the offense will still be able to move the ball and score points without much of an issue.
3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)- What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Cardinals had no real QB and that forced the defense to carry team-- which it couldn't do for the full season. This year, they have Carson Palmer, an improved running game with Rashard Mendenhall, and an offensive guru in new head coach, Bruce Arians. The defense is back and ready for another strong year. They added what could prove to be the steal of the draft, Tryann Mathieu, to the defensive backfield. The Honey Badger has been showing this preseason that he will be all over the field making plays. This is a team on the rise.
4. St. Louis Rams (7-9)- The Rams, like the rest of the division, have a devastating defense. The only problem is that Sam Bradford has yet to prove he is the All-Pro QB they took in the first round a few years ago. He seems to have trouble staying completely healthy, he lost his top receiving target in Danny Amendola to the Patriots, and no longer has Steven Jackson to help carry the load in the backfield. Darryl Richardson seems ready to become the starter at running back, but he still isn't a 25-30 touches per game guy that Jackson was.
1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)- It doesn't look like any of the other teams in this division is ready to unseat the Packers from the top seat just yet. Yes, Rodgers lost two of his top targets in Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, but Randall Cobb showed last year that he is ready to be the man at WR. Rodgers has an improved running game with the drafting on Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. Losing Bulaga from the OL will hurt a bit, but the Packers will survive the loss. The defense will still give up too many yards and points, but also get tons of sacks and takeaways.
2. Chicago Bears (10-6)- The top offseason priorities for the offense were to improve the line to protect Jay Cutler and add another receiving at TE. They fullfilled both by upgrading key positions on the line and signing free agent Martellus Bennett at TE. The defense will miss the now retired Brian Urlacher, but will still be among the league leaders in takeaways again this year.
3. Detroit Lions (9-7)- The Lions seem to finally have a running game they can count on with the addition of free agent Reggie Bush. The scary part is that Bush also upgrades an already dangerous passing attack with his receiving abilities out of the backfield. Even with the loss of Chris Avril, the defensive front will remain dangerous with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley causing havoc up the middle. Alas, this team is not yet ready to make the jump to the playoffs just yet.
4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)- From a playoff team a year ago to bottom of the division this year. Unfortunately, Adrian Peterson won't be able to carry his team into the postseason this year. They will play in a lot of close games, but Christian Ponder doesn't seem ready to take the reins at QB just yet and Matt Cassel is not the answer either.
1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)- The Falcons had the best record in the conference a year ago and will be able to boast that once again this year. They return one of the most dangerous receiving tandems in the game in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez for All Pro QB Matt Ryan. They upgraded the running game quite a bit by adding free agent Steven Jackson, and Jacquizz Rodgers emerged as a threat in the mold of Darren Sproles too.
2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)- The Saints return to the postseason with the return of head coach Sean Payton to the sidelines. That is the biggest this team needed to make from a year ago. While Drew Brees still had monster numbers last year, having Payton on the sideline will help cut down on some of the huge mistakes Brees made a year ago that cost the Saints' some close games. With Chris Ivory gone, maybe Mark Ingram will finally get a chance to shine in the running game this year.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)- Yes, Doug Martin is one of the RBs in the game now. Yes, Josh Freeman has a hell of an arm and has weapons with Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. And yes, they added All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis this offseason to replace the retiring Ronde Barber. But Freeman still makes too many mistakes for the offense to be consistent, and who knows how well Revis's knee will hold up as he is returning from major surgery.
4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)- Cam Newton can put up great fantasy numbers, but it is never a good thing when your QB is the team's leading rusher. Other than TE Greg Olsen and WR Steve Smith, someone else has to step up and become that third option for Newton to go to. While Luke Kuechly proved to be a defensive marvel, the rest of the unit still made too many mistakes that cost the team wins.
1. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)- I know Cowboys' fans want to blame every loss on Tony Romo, but when the defense allows a rookie RB to rush for over 200 yards in the biggest game of the season, the blame has to go to the defense. The running game will be solid as long as DeMarco Murray stays healthy, and Romo will have more time to throw to All-Pro targets Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten behind an improved offensive line. The defense will be better behind Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense and the switch to a 4-3 alignment. Remember a few years ago when Demarcus Ware had 20 sacks? He did that while also providing pass coverage as a LB. Now, as a full-time DE, Ware focus on simply creating havoc in the backfield. The same goes for Anthony Spencer on the other side of the line. The returns of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter from season-ending injuries vastly upgrade the LB position. This has the tools to win the division and make a run. But they can also return to making the same mistakes of the past and finish dead last. That is how much of a wild card this team is.
2. Washington Redskins (9-7)- This team will still shows flashes of the spectacular play from last year, but won't be as explosive this year. Teams are geared up to stop Robert Griffin III this year, and no one yet knows if he will be as explosive because he is still recovering from knee surgery. If RG3 doesn't run as much this year, it will diminish the read option threat and will expose the Redskins for a lack serious receiving threats on the offense.
3. New York Giants (8-8)- No team has ever made it to the Super Bowl when their home stadium is the host, and will remain that way again this year. The defense's biggest question is if Jason Pierre-Paul will be the anywhere the same after offseason back surgery. Eli Manning may have his top two targets back and healthy, but, unless a consistent number three emerges, he will still force bad throws that will lead to turnovers. The other question on offense is will David Wilson and Andre Brown replace all the contributions Ahmad Bradshaw made to the offense.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)- The offense will look scary and very fast in Chip Kelly's racecar-like system, and Michael Vick will have a nice bounce-back season thanks to said offense too. The problem in Philly won't be the offense. It is the defense. With the quick system on the other side of the ball, the defense will never be fully rested and will get burned quite often by opposing offenses. In this division alone, the defense faces three Pro Bowl-caliber QBs in Romo, Griffin, and Manning.
So the NFC playoff seedings will go like this:
In the Wild Card round, San Francisco will earn the 5-seed and travel to 4-seed, East division champ Dallas Cowboys and 3-seed Green Bay Packers will host 6-seed New Orleans Saints in a very exciting offensive shootout.
Earning byes to the Divisional round will be 1-seed Atlanta Falcons and 2-seed Seattle Seahawks.
That is how I see the NFC regular season playing itself out. Next we will see how the AFC will end up.